[OUTLOOK]A broker’s role, not a balancer’s

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[OUTLOOK]A broker’s role, not a balancer’s

Regrettably, we in Korea often overestimate ourselves, or at any rate do not know ourselves very well. A representative case is the perennial argument for Korea becoming “the hub of Northeast Asia” ―to which, lately, can be added President Roh Moo-hyun’s notion of our country as a “balancer” in the region.
Great ambitions are contained in these ideas ―ambitions to become not only the economic center of Northeast Asia, but its political and diplomatic center as well. The spirit behind these ideas, one of acting according to our convictions without being intimidated, is a good one. But when people of the highest authority make such remarks, should they not think more carefully about their repercussions, and about the adverse effects they might have?
The term “hub of Northeast Asia” was the wrong one from the beginning. However loudly we might argue and insist to ourselves that Korea is the center of Northeast Asia, other countries would not consider the possibility for a moment. It is more likely that such exaggerated talk may cause surrounding countries to think about making moves to hold our country in check.
Sarcastic remarks are already being heard here and there. If Korea is the central country in Asia, they ask, are China and Japan merely peripheral? These voices are displeased with the talk of being a “balancer,” too. An influential figure in the United States said the idea doesn’t even merit comment, asking rhetorically, “What power does Korea have?”
What are others to say if we close the door on the rest of the world, and trade encouraging remarks amongst ourselves? It would be a fine thing if Korea were indeed the hub of Northeast Asia, and how nice it would be to exercise great influence as a balancing power in Northeast Asia. But the problem is that Korea has its limitations, and the response from other countries to these ideas has been indifference. For others to say that we must be joking when we are quite serious about our remarks is a blow to the dignity of our country.
From now on, we should consider our capabilities and our limitations with a cool head before making such statements, so as to avoid bringing disgrace upon ourselves. It is childish to think that Korea can be a central power simply because it is halfway between Japan and China geographically. Being in the middle is not the same thing as being central.
We should no longer talk about becoming the hub of Northeast Asia. We are not in a position to discuss being a balancing force between China and Japan. Instead, we should try to be a broker in Northeast Asia. We should find solutions to our dilemmas by understanding the nature of the relations between China and Japan, and by capitalizing on them.
Japan is one of the richest, most technologically advanced nations in the world. China claims to be the emerging center of the world in the 21st century. Conflict and confrontation between the two are inevitable. For economic survival, Korea’s path lies between them.
Rather than aspire to become the “hub” of Northeast Asia, Korea should concentrate on creating profits and jobs for its own survival, while dissuading the two powers from fighting at times and mediating deals between them at other times. We should undertake the role of a mediator, offering venues for conferences and playing the role of a buffer in their conflicts.
If we play the part of a middleman well, both Japan and China will try to win us over to their side. A broker who is touchy about his ego is a poor broker indeed. Great brokers appease others in order to gain practical benefits, and are indifferent to the wounds to their own pride, if any. They walk a tightrope when necessary, and are prepared to swallow their pride in the national interest. This is not shameful submission. It is a high-level strategy that looks to the future.
In terms of abilities and circumstances, Korea is perfectly suited to be a broker. One could compare this role to that of a real estate agent. As the manufacturing industry collapses, becoming a broker nation is going to be the only way to create new jobs. The European nations of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are good examples of countries that have succeeded in this role.
But following their examples won’t be easy. It requires certain conditions and a certain attitude. The present economic and social atmosphere of Korea falls far short of those conditions. To be a capable middleman, for one thing, we will have to give up our Korea-centric attitude and embrace foreign languages and cultures. This is a very different way of thinking from the one whose main concern is saving face.
Seen more closely, the policy of devoting all energy to economic recovery comes out of desperation. In a difficult situation in which making a living is a serious problem and finding a job is like grabbing a star in the sky, an “economy-first” policy is bound to draw attention. Who would enjoy talking about the economy at every opportunity?

* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Chang-kyu
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